A Fireside Chat with Teddy Edwards
“ The middle Forties was the most creative period in history because everything was at its highest tempo. Everything was moving. The country was moving. People were moving across the country back and forth. Musicians were going from this band to that band. When they would draft guys, they would have to change guys and it was just a fantastic period. ”
Teddy Edwards passed away over the weekend after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. Edwards will be missed terribly. To see yet another voice unheard and unappreciated during his lifetime is a source of great angst for me. So an encore of a Fireside I did with Mr. Teddy Edwards a few years back.
Teddy Edwards should be a legend. But then there would be justice in the world and justice is something beyond comprehension these days. I will allow you to experience Teddy on your own. It is Teddy and the Roadshow, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Teddy Edwards: Well, my father was a musician and my grandfather was one of the early acoustic bass players during that time. Sometimes the band would rehearse at our house and my mother and my grandmother would get my little chair and sit me right next to the saxophones. They would have been very disappointed if I hadn't turned out to be a saxophonist (laughing). Someone that lived at our house played saxophone and his altitude for playing was very low, but he taught me what he knew. He was honest. He said, "I don't know anything else to teach you." I started studying with him when I was eleven years old and at twelve years old, I was playing with one of the local bands at home. I was around music all the time, music in our house in Jackson, Mississippi. That was my home. I went to Detroit in 1940. I stayed there for about four years and I had a death in the family and ventured back down to Jackson and ventured down into Louisiana with a group from home.
The leader was drafted and they made me the leader. I was the youngest one in the group, but I was the one carrying it and attracting the attention. We ventured down into Tampa, Florida. Youngsters used to stand outside just to meet players, Cannonball and Nat Adderley. They (Cannonball and Nat Adderley) were too young to come in the place (laughing). The Ernie Fields' Orchestra was in town to play a dance and they would have a few days and so some of the guys in his orchestra heard me play and they went back and told him about me and he came and asked me if I would join his band. I told him that I was getting ready to go to New York because my father had told me to go to New York. Ernie told me, "We're going to Washington D.C., so you just ought to work your way on up with us and you would have more money when you get to New York." I said, "That makes sense." We got to Pensacola, Florida and the next stop was over in Louisiana and started getting further and further away from New York (laughing).
AAJ: Did you finally make it to the Big Apple?
TE: Oh, not on that trip, Fred (laughing). I made it as far as Wilmington, Delaware. I got that close. We played a theater in Baltimore and we played a dance in Wilmington. By that time, how should I say it, I developed sentimentally toward the guys and I was stuck there for a while. But anyway, we had a gig in Lincoln, Nebraska and the next gig was in Los Angeles at the Club Alabam. That was around late November of '44. That was my introduction to Los Angeles. Incidentally, Fred, I played my big orchestra at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival, just across the street from the Dunbar Hotel, where I stayed the first night I came to Los Angeles. Anyway, that is how I got to Los Angeles.
AAJ: Let's talk about those Central Avenue sounds.
TE: That was the scene in America. Everybody was thinking about 52nd Street, but the Central Avenue was the scene. When I arrived to Los Angeles, we got to LA around three o'clock in the morning and there were people all over the street everywhere. They had after hours clubs going. Everything was happening. Everybody wanted to know. Just like you asked me about Central Avenue, people have been asking me that every since because the newspapers here were not caring about the music because the bebop thing was making a change. 52nd Street was about three blocks. They had music from about 118th Street in Los Angeles, all the way to First Street, with clubs. On one block on Central Avenue, where I first worked at the Alabam, they had the Alabam,
Dynamite Jackson's next, and then the Downbeat on the corner was my favorite jazz club that I ever played in. And across the street was the Last Word. There was music on 56th Street, a lot of music around Vernon and Central. An old movie actor had a place where Art Tatum used to hangout every night. After he would finish his gig, he would go to Lovejoy's and play until daylight. Then there was Jack's Basket Room. That is where the guys really used to get together, Wardell (Gray) and Dexter (Gordon) and Lucky Thompson and Sonny Criss or Hampton Hawes. It was really happening. It held two bandstands. We would jam there after we got off work with our regular gig. That was about two thirty in the morning and it would probably go until six or seven o'clock in the morning. Then across the street, up the street, there was another club that went all night. Across from that was the Lincoln Theatre. But you see, Fred, what happened was the War was in the Pacific during this time. Everything was moving west, except the writers. They stayed in New York. The only one that came out here in early 1946 was Leonard Feather, who finally came out here. We didn't have a jazz magazine here during that time. So they had a couple of newspaper writers that had respect for the music, but they didn't have any support.
Then over on Avalon Boulevard, they had the Casablanca club and Caf' Society and another place down on Jefferson. There were some classic works that played through there. The Casablanca, Frank Morgan, the alto player, his father eventually bought the place and that is where Charlie Parker played his classic solo on "Lover Man" one night, or one morning rather. Then on First Street, there was the Cobra Room, where I worked Roy Milton when I first left the Ernie Fields' Orchestra and came back to California, back in January of '45. Directly from there was the Rendezvous, another after hours club. I used to play with Roy Milton until two o'clock or two thirty and go across the street and work the Rendezvous. Right in the middle of the club was the Finale Club, where Howard McGhee had his band. We had a reed section of Charlie Parker and Sonny Criss were the alto players. Ironically, that building is the only building that is still standing on First Street today. I just showed it to somebody recently when I went down to the City Hall, where they honored some of us. They gave us certificates for our time we've been spending through the years making music in Los Angeles. On First Street and Los Angeles, now that is where Gerald Wilson had his big orchestra upstairs and Eddie Heywood's sextet was downstairs. They had two groups playing there. Then you go to Hollywood, Billy Berg's there on Vine Street, that's where Charlie Parker and Dizzy first played when they came here. Billie Holiday played. He booked all kinds of big named artists there and broadcast every night for thirty minutes every night live from Billy Berg's. Right up the street was the Radio Room.
Then before you get there, there was the Empire Room, a big room. In that same block was the Hangover, a Dixieland place. Music was all over and nobody was recording it. In fact, Fred, the Smithsonian Institute wanted to do a thing about Central Avenue and they could not find one photo of a front of a club. They could not find one photo. If you had a photo, it would have been worth a lot of money. Then on Hollywood Boulevard had the Jade Room and then had the swing club where I had my first gig with Howard McGhee. Howard McGhee came to play at Billy Berg's with Coleman Hawkins and he wanted to stay in California and so he persuaded me to play the tenor because he wanted a tenor instead of an alto. I was playing lead alto when I came here with the Ernie Fields' Orchestra. So that is when I started playing the tenor.